Sunday, March 18, 2012


I’ve been thinking a lot about controversy lately.  Controversial actions usually attract a lot of attention.  Media outlets go head to head, experts debate in Congress, professors engage students in lively discussions, and everyone, everywhere, takes a side.  Often, in humanitarian and development circles, controversy is unavoidable. 

I’ve been in Dar es Salaam for the past week and have had plenty of access to media and the latest news.  The film Kony 2012 was released by Invisible Children last week.  The outpouring of support literally shut down several Invisible Children websites.  Outrage over the alleged misuse of funds by Invisible Children also flooded message boards, blogs and Facebook pages.  I went to see the movie, Machine Gun Preacher a couple of days ago here in Dar.  It is based on the true story of Sam Childers, an ex-criminal, who makes it his own personal mission to help children whose families had been brutally destroyed by the LRA in South Sudan.  He saves thousands of children from the horrors of war in South Sudan.  In the process, he literally takes up arms and fights back against the LRA.  The movie ends with the real Sam Childers saying during the credits, “If a madman abducted your child and I said I could bring them home, does it matter how I do it?”  Controversial question?  I’d say so.

On a smaller scale, I’ve had the opportunity to both talk and work with dozens of development workers, researchers and NGOs while I have been abroad.  Some of these people have literally given up their own lives in order to improve the lives of others.  Unfortunately, a lot of the talk in development circles is focused on what everyone else is doing wrong.  Invisible Children is too late.  Sam Childers was too violent.  World Vision spends too much in overhead.  Angelina Jolie is just trying to boost her image.  Yes.  Sometimes we have to look at what is done wrong in order to figure out how to do something right.  Sadly, most of what I am seeing here on the ground, in academia and in the media, is just a lot of finger pointing. 

When the media places blame, it’s more understandable.  They’re creating hype, developing a headline story.  But, when one NGO points the finger at another, well – I’ll just say it like it is:  I think it’s appalling.  From an outsider’s perspective, it just looks like one NGO trashing another in order to attract a new donor’s dollar.  I’m not the expert, but I do know that just about every NGO out there is trying to right a wrong, win a fight, better a life, support someone in need.  And not a single NGO out there gets it all right.  Not one.  Sometimes we spend too much in overhead and other times we skimp in the name of saving a penny, but serve one less because of it.  In some cases we act on emotion, ignoring some of the consequences, but in other cases we sit in a board room, weighing decisions while motherless children sit in mud homes crying for help.

I’m not saying every action, by every NGO out there, is justifiable.  And I’m not validating seemingly corrupt actions one way or the way.  All I’m saying is that sometimes children are fed, wells are dug, schools are built and lives are saved despite our humanness.  Do the ends justify the means?  I don’t know. 

What I do know is that fighting each other isn’t helping anything.  So why don’t we stop calling each other out publicly?  Pick up the phone and offer up your expertise.  The blame game isn’t making Invisible Children look bad.  It’s not making World Vision or Sam Childers look bad.  It’s making the nonprofit sector look bad.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

I need a what?!?!

If there is one thing I am more afraid of than spiders, it is the dentist.  And, as luck would have it, early last week I found myself wide awake at 3 am, in excruciating pain, in a guesthouse in Iringa, Tanzania.  Looking back on it, it is sort of funny.  I had pretty much convinced myself that I had the worst migraine imaginable that was radiating pain through the right side of my face, my eye and my jaw.  Truthfully, it was sort of like the time I fell face first on the ice, held my hand over my bloody smashed in teeth and told my mom I didn’t have to go to the hospital because it was only a broken nose.  Apparently, I will subconsciously recreate any ailment in order to avoid a trip to the dentist.

My denial lasted a few days and then last Friday night I woke up with pain that was undeniably only in my tooth.  So this past Tuesday, I started my two day journey to Dar es Salaam to find a dentist.  I was able to meet up with four of my friends from Zanzibar and for a couple of days we hung out, played cards, caught up, cooked fajitas, enjoyed a few drinks and ate at great restaurants.  It was a much appreciated mini-vacation.  Then, Friday morning, I found myself rolling through the traffic jams in downtown Dar in a bijaji, chattin’ it up in Swahili with my driver, heading in to the dentist to get a filling.  In Africa.  To be honest, I was pretty proud of myself for just stepping up and figuring out where to go and how to get there all by myself.  Unfortunately, by the time I got to the dentist’s office the excitement of my adventure had worn off and in its place was a nauseating feeling of fear. 

My fear quickly turned into downright panic when the dentist informed me that a filling wouldn't do it.  I would need a root canal.  And, of course, not just any root canal, but a triple root canal.  Apparently my tooth had three canals that had to be drilled out and the process would take two days.  Fun.

It’s been exactly 24 hours since day one of my root canal and I’m doing surprisingly well.  Somehow, in a third world country, I found a really smart, extremely kind dentist who reassured me he would do everything he could to make sure I was comfortable.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have the headphones I asked for to block out the drilling sound!  Aside from that, he held true to his word.  He was great.  I clenched my trembling hands together, did my best to think about anything other than what was going on in my mouth, and in thirty minutes it was over.  The pain hasn’t been too bad and by next Tuesday I’ll be ready to head back to Dr. Shabbir, my new favorite dentist at SD Dental Clinic for round two.

In the meantime, I plan to enjoy my time in the city and take advantage of the little luxuries like movie theaters, Subway, pedicures, ice cream, high pressure showers and digital TV. 

One hour after my root canal - on the way to the U.S. Embassy